On the morning of Wednesday 8 September and after a largely sleepless night I made my way downstairs to the kitchen, where I turned on the radio.
In mid-flight was an unusually impassioned Chief Rabbi, delivering his Thought for the Day. What had animated him was the pronouncement by Prof. Stephen Hawking in his latest book that "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist ... It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe alight."
Well, the Professor had certainly lit the Rabbi’s fuse. You can listen to the broadcast here – see what you think. Oh, Hawking and Dawkins, with their books to sell, think they are removing the scales of illusion from our eyes with something new. In my weakened and vulnerable state I was very grateful for the words of the Chief Rabbi as he once again asserted, against the background of millennia of tradition, that fact was the realm of science, while the territory of faith was meaning. Sorry, Richard and Stephen, but you would have had nothing to offer me yesterday as I grappled with my new diagnosis and teetered on the brink of meaninglessness. Without faith, hope and vision, life closes down. This is the reality of our makeup with which you consistently fail to grapple.
AC Grayling was duly wheeled on later, only too happy to agree with Hawking that religion had had its day, but asserting— himself a multiply published author—that there was still life in philosophy. Couldn’t agree more, AC old chap, but it was quite fun hearing you choke on a dose of your own medicine from one of the New Atheists (if that is what Hawking be).
This was going to be a day of consolidation and regrouping after the muck and bullets of the last 24 hours. My son was home, yet to start his third year at medical school and so I had the best of companions, a calm and increasingly learned presence. I managed to speak to my brother, himself a retired GP, who the previous day had returned from a trip to his son in Australia. He took the news very well and came over more or less immediately with a laptop full of diverting pictures from his travels. I felt more normal, though still very numb and with a pervasive sense of changed reality.
Father Milligan came over, travelling quite a distance to be by my side in my hour of need. After a lunch of baked beans (comfort food par excellence), we sat on the sofa and talked about the practicalities of work now that I was ill. Then, with a characteristic glint in his eye, he produced his chrism jar and said that he would pray for me and anoint me with oil. This was a precious moment and not for the first time was I grateful for what we so blandly call “organised religion”. As I had received strength from the boldness of the Chief Rabbi, so now I was conscious that the oil about to be smoothed on my forehead in the ancient sign of the cross was from the hands of a priest whose authority came from the laying on of hands in an unbroken line from the earliest days of the Christian Faith (notwithstanding a Reformation or two). It is easy to find fault with the many follies of religious practice, but the oldest and the noblest traditions, often the simplest, endure for our blessing and we can still be touched by them, as I was in this quiet time.
My beloved priest then went on his way, back to the increased workload imposed on him by my forced absence, whose burden he made light of with characteristic good humour.
In the afternoon I diverted myself with a bit of footling on facebook, a forum for which over the last few weeks I am aware of a growing respect. Suddenly, with a cheeky ‘pop’ there appeared a chat window. An American friend, happening to be online, had taken the opportunity to ask me a generic “how are you?” How could I possibly reply honestly in that moment without spreading myself thin? I merely gave a bland reply and said that I was just logging off, so postponing a detailed account for a later day. Working over the days through a list of friends whom we have wanted to tell the news personally I have been conscious that the story has acquired a patina of bearability, a loss of rawness with each retelling and an accommodation of the new reality into my everyday consciousness. Once the story has been told, it can be a relief to move on to other subjects. In that moment however and with this friend it was all too new to recount.
I was in a limbo awaiting final diagnosis. At some stage I lay in bed for quite a while and idly took this picture on my phone. The angles are strangely consoling.